I recently had to give up my resident status in the great state of Montana and moved to Washington as a career move for myself and family. I choose to think of us as “temporarily displaced” rather than admit that we have moved away for good. Even though Washington has some great deer, elk and bear opportunities, I still apply for Montana’s high-percentage draws such as elk and deer combo tags each year, as well the long-shots for moose, sheep, and goat. Luckily, I was able to keep my preference points, although the odds of drawing a non-resident lottery tag are much lower. While analyzing my new costs for nonresident applications (MT requires $50 per app) versus likelihood for a successful draw, I found myself beginning to strategize which tags I would apply for each season. Some draws like sheep are once in a lifetime (either by law, or as effectively determined by incredibly low draw odds), and I initially considered anything besides my #1 choice hunting district would be a waste of my application preference points. Montana rotates the sheep districts that are available for nonresidents each year, so I would look at skipping applications for years when my top choice was not available. But, in reality, even though I have been putting in for a decade trying to get drawn, there is certainly no guarantee that I will ever be successful. It’s a stark reality. Plus, I’ll eventually hit an age where I’m no longer physically capable of a strenuous hunt, assuming that I make it to old age without perishing in a freak jet boat crash or anything like that. I really hope to be hunting the high country when I’m in my 80’s, but that will not likely be the case.
So, how many hunts do you have left? Be honest with yourself. Life brings on many surprises and speedbumps that can limit your hunting opportunities. Maybe it’s family, more responsibilities at work, moving further away from your hunting ground (like, I don’t know, maybe from MT to WA for just a random example off the top of my head), or changes in your financial situation. And the scariest one…changes in your health and physical ability. If you want to do a real backcountry hunt, your window of opportunity is finite. My good hunting buddy brought this to my attention last year. We have a backcountry elk hunt that we discussed doing every 2-3 years. He is a big guy, and he can admit that his back and joints aren’t what they used to be. His body already needs more maintenance than mine on our hunts, but his spirit is probably stronger than mine. I really respect that he can acknowledge his limitations, and I am trying to do the same, and we have now decided to chase the high county elk every year until we can’t.
If I am currently 34 years old, and I can ambitiously expect to complete some level of backcountry hunting through age 65, then that leaves me with 31 good hunting seasons left. That’s actually great. If I were the world’s greatest hunter, I could plan to harvest 31 more elk and deer in my life, but I really can’t guess what my lifetime harvest batting average will be, so we’ll talk in terms of “hunts” or “opportunities” rather than “animals harvested”. My batting average is very unlikely to be one thousand, though. Now, let’s assume I have five years where I have a life event that keeps me from hunting, like maybe….some stupid friend’s wedding or something, or an injury, work obligation, family emergency…then I am down to 26 hunting opportunities, which is reducing my chances of harvest by over 16%. Now, what if the weather is bad for a couple of those remaining years? What if a harsh winter decimated the elk population? What if the whitetail population is struck down by bluetongue again? These are just a few of many factors that can further reduce your opportunities to hunt. If there was a specific hunt that I want to take on, how many years will it be before I am competitive in the draw? If a Montana bighorn sheep wait period is an average minimum of ten years, then over 32% of my remaining hunting years will be spent pining rather than chasing game. The more years that I choose not to apply for that permit hunt, the longer it will take to be drawn, and the further I will be from the ability and drive that youth affords.
When you’re applying for hunts each year, should you wait for the perfect hunt, or take what you can get? I recommend you set yourself up to be prepared for success every year. If the available hunting districts rotate each year, do your research and find one that you can get excited about each season. Apply every year, because waiting out just one year can have a significant impact on your odds. For example, let’s say that since there is a 10% limitation on non-resident sheep tags, I am not only limited by the 0.5% typical odds of overall draw probability, but I am also limited that I have to be one of the first tags drawn of non-residents. So if the unit I apply for only awards 10 successful tags, I not only have to be one of the ten lucky applicants, but I would also have to be the first lucky non-resident to be drawn.
If you still want to strategize, such as if you think you might hit on all your long-shot lottery tickets in one year, you can stagger your apps throughout the year. Many states stagger their application periods and draw dates, so you don’t have to put in for all your applications at once. I used to put in for the permit draws with the extreme low odds for years that I didn’t really want to get drawn, but I no longer do that. I put in for hunts I want every year, and have a plan for success if I’m drawn.
Hunting shouldn’t be your only priority in life. All opportunities in life are finite, so make sure you take advantage of every one that presents itself. But, when you are considering your hunts for next year, give yourself fair consideration as to how many are really left on the Big Calendar of your life. And if it doesn’t work out this year, go with a nearby second option. It would be a shame to die with bare walls and an empty freezer.